I Watched A Classic #1: Saving Private Ryan

Written by Alex Martin

08 Oct 2020

WARNING: Spoilers and scene analyses included.

Just to explain this series, if that's what it becomes; at one point in my life, i.e. being politely picked on by some then-course-mates a few years ago, I realised that there are several well-known films that I for whatever reason have not watched. Upon this realisation I have found myself once in a while watching more “classic” films, and I've always had the additional idea to document my thoughts on these classic films; are they as good as people say, etc.? With that being said, let's get into it...

Saving Private Ryan is a name that you probably would've heard of, regardless as to whether you've watched it or not. Maybe you've heard a joke about it or heard it being compared to that war film you watched last night. I was first introduced properly to Saving Private Ryan whilst I was at university, studying music technology. One of my university lecturers showed me and my class the 20-minute long D-Day opening scene as he thought it was a great example of great sound design, which I believe was the module he was teaching. Furthermore, and not to toot my own horn or anything, but my university was said to be one of the best in the country, so if my lecturer who taught at one of the UK's best universities shows me a scene from a film because it's a great example of sound design, you probably should trust that opinion highly.

[That's NOT what I was expecting the face of God to look like. (https://wallpaperaccess.com/)]

Expanding upon the aforementioned opening scene, it kind of annoys me that it's not regarded more as one of the greatest opening scenes of all time. True, it can be said that this scene isn't the film's actual opening scene and that the film's true opening scene is the emotionally poignant modern-day scene, which is itself a well-made scene; the old man walking a few steps in front of his caring family as he feels the need to do what happens next on his own but still requires some form of emotional support, and how all opens on a nice coastal forest walk then switches to “oh shit, a LOT of people died” (a hint of the gravitas that's soon to be felt by the audience) but I just think that that scene is also a small part of a larger sequence. I just think it deserves to be up there with cinema's best opening scenes, The Dark Knight, Inglorious Basterds, etc., as it sets you up immediately for the standard of filmmaking that's to come.

What this scene, heck, what this film does so well is convey a genuine feeling of realism when it comes to its war element/scenes; you feel like you're immersed in an actual war taking place. Several things seem to be going on here to achieve this, firstly the aforementioned Oscar-winning sound design is indeed great (the editing also won an Oscar), with the realistic and impactful gunfire sounds mostly taking centre stage, rendering the dialogue difficult to hear properly (you might need subtitles on as we did), in fact, a lot of things go into making this scene what it is. Secondly, the portrayal of characters is nicely realised too. I imagine it would be so easy to treat supporting characters as simply that, supporting characters. However throughout the film both the main characters and supporting characters feel like they're given equal attention when they need it, resulting in characters both named and unnamed all feel like they're lived in (yes, some may be more lived-in than others but the main thing is that they feel lived in where it counts). Not to mention that the film is chockablock with character moments, sometimes just taking the form of just banter between two characters who might or might not know each other, as an example. The final element in making these scenes feel what they are is the imagery, as it probably is the part of the film that'll take you by surprise the most, as it'll do in the moments leading up to and during the soldiers' touch-down on Omaha Beach. We see Tom Hanks who's giving out orders, and a variety of other characters, about to touch down on said beach, some of them visibly scared, some seasick. The camera angles are tight, contained to just the boat, showing close-ups of the soldiers, tension is being built up, then the doors open and *immediately* about a third of the soldiers on the boat get wiped out by German gunfire. A few minutes later one guy gets his leg blown off and it pretty much goes on from there. When it comes to this film's violence, it may seem like a horrifying inclusion, and I suppose it's entirely dependant on what you can stomach. In my opinion, it's all done in a “tasteful way”, as in the focus seems to be more on the emotional punch and weight of the imagery as opposed to imagery so scary that it'll keep you up at night (that being said, the image of one armless soldier picking up a shot-off arm, he, like us, might not even know if it's his, and venturing off with it is one weird image I won't be forgetting). Besides, the violence isn't the only thing that creates a dark image and setting for the audience, there is also imagery such as deaths underwater, slow deaths, weapons taken off maimed characters who are clearly still alive, really tough decisions being made and execution-esque scenes; imagery to invoke feelings such as despair, shock and hopelessness, and via the use of one bloodstained letter that appears a few times in the story, it's shown how there's no escape from this hellscape. No wonder some of these soldiers are seen praying or reciting writings from the bible! The film also has this adventure/road film feel to it too, by way of meeting several characters along the way with their own small stories to tell, how their aircraft failed and crashed, etc. This film still would be the same if these short exchanges were taken out but I personally don't mind a bit of world-building.

This film *will* make you feel things and it's quite sad at times (I mean when I last watched this film I cried at the scene where Mrs Ryan is told of her sons' deaths, but that might be because I've watched this film a few times by now). One final thing I wanna say about the opening scene is that I like the decision to slowly reveal that one of the dead soldiers is one of Private Ryan's dead brothers, meaning the scene hasn't just been a long introduction to a great and detailed style of filmmaking, full of emotionally impactful imagery, it's also been a large storytelling device, therefore justifying its presence (maybe this deceased private Ryan is a soldier we might've actually seen beforehand, while he was still alive...).

[The lads' game of Sardines was getting intense. (https://wallpaperaccess.com/)]

The film also touches on several themes and ideas throughout, all woven together. These are mostly personal interpretations but in my opinion the film touches on small themes like brotherhood (friendship between soldiers; people who've ended up in the same position) and faith (do they believe in what they are doing and the collective actions taken to justify it), which kinda sways into the not-as-small but not-as-constant theme, I think, of hierarchy. In the film the character John Miller, played by “nicest guy in the world” Tom Hanks, leads a small group of soldiers to find one other soldier, James Ryan, somewhere in Normandy. Before this, we see a sequence set away from the war, where characters (all still feeling lived in by the way, as I said before) slowly learn that Ryan's three older brothers have been KIA, and when the information reaches General George Marshall the ongoing discussion as to what they do with this information leads him to read the Bixby letter, a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to Lydia Parker Bixby in an attempt to console her after the deaths of five of her sons, aloud, later putting the letter down to recite the rest out loud; he's probably read it a lot. When he declares afterwards that Ryan is alive and he will be saved, we see the human element at full in the characters in this scene, they all agree (and I like how the letter element is bought back in the very last scene with Matt Damon; as a new original letter to Mrs Ryan is narrated to us, not the mechanical copy-and-paste letters we saw before). Thing is though, Captain Miller's group aren't present for that scene, as they're away, fighting in, you know, the war, so all they have are orders and information, not any sort of emotional drive, and we see this throughout the film as the soldiers venture on, as they're following their orders but also have their own personal doubts, which are voiced in their more private moments and sometimes even out loud, and is one of the main causes of the film's few instances of group drama.

As I said before a lot of work was done to make the war element in this film seem real, but the film also shows examples of war's effect on people; it's scarring nature and how it can make even strong men terrified or even vengeful and unsympathetic for the enemy soldiers who are fighting for the same reasons they are (i.e. they were trained beforehand and ordered to), how accustomed people can get to all the violence and in some few scenes how they become accustomed to the point of enjoyment. Given all this, it can be understood how there seems to be an ongoing struggle throughout the film between the feeling of hope juxtaposed with the unapologetically grim reality the characters find themselves in. Mostly hope seems to be fighting a losing battle, shown in instances such as characters making grand attempts to save others only for it to be in vain, resulting with the deaths of either themselves or the person they were trying to save, and how in a few scenes the differences between these two said themes are a bit murky, shown in the scene where the privates and the captain are shown going through dog tags of deceased soldiers to see if James Ryan's tag is amongst them. To them, it's a moment of relief and banter, to all the other soldiers walking by them, it comes off as a lack of compassion and respect for their dead friends. The positivity they were experiencing was something negative for everyone else. After this realisation, Miller is drawn closer and closer to giving up altogether, heartlessly and angrily asking anyone if they know a James Ryan, which to his surprise gives the group its first truly hopeful moment; when they're bought someone who tells them where he was last seen. When they finally meet James Ryan, played by Matt Damon, he's introduced by way of blowing up a German tank with a rocket launcher and is later shown to genuinely care about winning the war, even after he's told of his brothers' deaths; probably the best example of what an American soldier should be in this film. Earlier I said that this film is chockablock with character moments and the same can be said for its interpretive details; there is never one scene where that feels that something isn't being conveyed, shown or explored. In fact, there are way too many to analyse, and it annoys me slightly that I can't go through with a fine tooth-comb and analyse every single one of them. All I can say is that they're all necessary for expressing where the film's characters are at certain points throughout.

[Even American soldiers turn their heads when they hear the ice-cream van. (https://www.pinterest.co.uk/)]

Also, the characters we follow all have their own personal identities that are unique to themselves while also not so overpowering that the group as a whole doesn't have its own identity. The main character we follow, John Miller, is played by Tom Hanks, who's been in more than one of my current favourite films, as well as some of my favourite films when I was a kid. In this film, I found his acting a lot more restrained than previous roles I've seen him in, with a simple focus on trying to convey character and complexities. From his first scene, you pretty much get everything you need to start to get to know him, he's an army captain who's putting up a brave front, keeping his war-induced hand tremors and emotional turmoil a secret from absolutely everyone. There is a scene in the film that shows this perfectly, of him after Wade's death wherein he finally breaks down and lets the emotion out while actively hiding and looking around to see if anyone can see him; some of his best acting. He's treated like a mythical creature of sorts by the others and has to make a few tough decisions throughout the film. All the other characters of Miller's group feel unique too, there's Dan Jackson, a cool bible-quoting sniper, Mike Horvath, Captain Miller's friend and strict and uptight second hand, Richard Reiben, a wise-ass outspoken fellow who's not afraid to let his opinions known and maybe ask questions he shouldn't (and who'd probably be a womaniser if there were any single woman in Normandy), Adrian Caparzo, whose little actions in the film show him to be a caring and down-to-earth guy and does the “right thing” even if it's against orders, and the final characters I'll mention, Stanley Mellish and Irwin Wade, who similarly to Caparzo also seem to have their minds set on doing the right things, whereas Wade is shown to also do good things as well as challenge those who seem to enforce the opposite and even tell off fellow soldiers when they're in the wrong, and Mellish is a character who's quite emotionally invested and impacted by the war, given how one scene show's he's jewish, while also coming off as a big brother in some scenes, including how he's one of the few characters who's actually nice to Upham.

Furthermore to note is that throughout the film a variety of well-known actors have supporting roles before their respective breakout roles. In this film, you see Bryan Cranston (pre-Malcolm In The Middle and Breaking Bad), Ted Danson (pre-The Good Place, but had been in Cheers prior), Nathan Fillion (pre-Firefly), Paul Giamatti (who has had several cool roles since, including being a Marvel villain for three minutes) and Ryan Hurst, known for Sons Of Anarchy and The Walking Dead, who's virtually unrecognisable without his beard (he plays that private who's hearing is damaged after a grenade went off next to his head). All these characters, whether or not they're a main or supporting character, have several lines or just one or two, all feel realistically portrayed by their respective actors and unique unto themselves. Through watching the special features on the DVD I learned that prior to shooting the film our main group actors were given a crash course in what it would be like to be a soldier by the film's senior military adviser, Dale Dye (a Marine veteran who fought in the Vietnam war, whose actual job is to help films portray army action realistically, and also portrays an unnamed colonel in the scene with General George Marshall), including traditional army training, eating from rations, crawling, sleeping in mud, learning combat techniques and being shot at with blanks; a visceral experience as to what it was like. They're interviewed about this, saying that they came out of it with a unique form of chemistry as they had more of an understanding as to what being a soldier was like and if shows in the final version of the film. I also like how there are scenes where characters talk over the other or several conversations happen at the same time, as these scenes help them to feel more like real people.

[That man with Tom Hanks is Dale Dye, who greatly contributed in making the film as realistic as it is. (https://www.stripes.com/)]

Now those of you who've watched the film already (which you probably should've as I've kinda spoiled some scenes/parts of the story by analysing them) might've realised that there was one outstanding character whom I only mentioned briefly in a prior paragraph, the character of Timothy Upham, who's played by Jeremy Davies, and that's because I wanted to give him his own paragraph(s) as his arc throughout the film is kinda tragic, to be honest. When we first meet him, we get to see him as a kinda clumsy voice-of-reason/audience surrogate character. At first, he's presented as the most innocent character out of the group; he says in his first scene that he hasn't held a weapon since basic training, and we also see him being a slight comic relief too. Also, he's been reading a book about the bonds between soldiers during the war, awh. Now, to go off-topic briefly, the film does have a few funny moments, not necessarily Marvel-esque tongue-in-cheek moments, more like “hanging out with my mates and one of them said something funny” kinda humour, banter basically. That being said though, Upham has a couple of scenes that come of as more traditionally humour-enducing, whether it be through his clumsiness or ignorance. Now there is a scene in the film set at a disused radio site, that I'll be bringing up again later on in this article, which sees the group internally debate about what to do with a German soldier whose group was responsible for the death of one of theirs. Most of them seem to want to kill him in revenge and to not let him rejoin other German soldiers, the other argument, one Upham seems most vocal about, is not to kill him and to let him go, and we the audience agree with him; we also wouldn't see the point if we were in Upham's shoes. Fun fact; this German soldier's name is never revealed and he's only credited as “Steamboat Willie”. Prior to the final decision as to whether or not he be killed or released there's a scene which has Upham and Willie smoke cigarettes together; pretty much the films only vaguely peaceful scene before it quickly transitions to Willie declaring things like “I like America” and “fuck Hitler”, spouting a few “Americanisms” and singing a bad rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner with one part of the first line remembered, to a bunch of American soldiers who mostly wish him dead. It's a unique scene as we see the good guys that we've been following as not-so-good guys. He's later released and is told to surrender himself to the first ally patrol he comes across and the film goes on from there.

Towards the films main climax scene, after finally finding James Ryan, Upham seems to finally integrate into the group through Mellish and is given the role of supplying ammunition to those who need it. At one point in the film's said climax, Mellish calls out for Upham's help to which he heads off to give but freezes at a couple of moments, allowing some German soldiers to converge on Mellish's position, which ends in his slow death. This scene ends with Mellish's killer walking down the stairs up to where Mellish was positioned, silently passing Upham along the way, whom then breaks down and cries. This scene packs such an emotional punch as factually speaking Upham could have helped Mellish; he had a gun on him that he could've used in some way, any way, but he just wasn't brave enough and was not able to do anything. To make matters worse, Upham later sees a familiar face, Steamboat Willie, having rejoined his fellow German soldiers as opposed to surrendering, shoot one American private before shooting Captain Miller. Once again Upham is faced with the fact that being compassionate isn't needed in this war, it's a weakness, and for all we know, he might have again been able to save the captain if he only had the strength to go against his first instincts, i.e. instincts we all have, provided you have your head on straight. Afterwards, Upham finally finds it in him to hold a gun on Willie and his group, and all it takes is for Willie to say Upham's name to finally shoot him in cold blood. In one moment his innocence is lost, and this arc is just one of the best examples this film has of how war can change and scar those involved, as well as being one of the darkest film sequences I've ever seen. Upham shooting Willie is the last thing we see him do story-wise; we don't have any idea of his whereabouts in the present day but we can only assume he's haunted throughout the years by the guilt he feels about his actions and lack thereof.

[Timothy Upham, the most tragic film character ever? (https://pt.fanpop.com/)]

So the film is great with characters, performances, chemistry, story, depth, sound design and realism, is that all it's good at? Amazingly, no. During my first watching of this film, the first thing I remember noticing was some of the best cinematography I've ever seen. The cinematographer to this film was Janusz Kamiński, who's also done cinematography for other films I've seen (mostly other films by Steven Spielberg, who he's worked with quite often), but I don't remember the cinematography in those films being as impactful as it is in Saving Private Ryan. It's probably his choice of deciding between which shots are close-ups, which aren't, how he frames said shots and how the more army-centric scenes are pretty much always done with a handheld style, thereby creating the sense that you're looking through the eyes of a soldier or the eyes of a character, leaving the mounted shots for the quieter moments. It's spotless work, one that Kamiński won an Oscar for. Furthermore, the dialogue feels well done too, and you can just feel that a lot of time was spent to make it suited to each character, and I mean every character, not to mention that it's stocked to the brim with male bravado and military jargon. Like other great films, every line seems to have its own purpose whether it be relating to something about a character or theme or a bit of both. The only bit of dialogue I don't understand is Wade's story of how when he was younger, he'd pretend to be asleep when his mom returned home after a long day working, after previously staying up to wait for her. Maybe it's just a way of conveying the innocence of life back home? I don't know. The soundtrack is also top-notch and I'd say it's where the film gets its epic feel from. It feels as though someone had the idea that The Star-Spangled Banner should be made into a full soundtrack; very orchestral and invoking a variety of emotions, most notably a sense of feeling triumphant or optimistic, but also cuts out when it comes to the action scenes and other scenes, letting the sound design speak for itself.

As far as criticisms go, part of my only real criticisms lie with the radio site/bunker scene I mentioned before. I could say that the first part of my criticisms lie in how at the beginning of the scene, Tom Hanks' character is acting differently to how he should, but when you think how he's this great, seemingly invincible captain who's had his act partially seen through in the scene prior, you can partially understand why he's making decisions that come off as rash. I think my main criticisms are actually in the action scene that comes afterwards and how we don't really see any of it. The ensuing scene for some reason is told entirely from Upham's perspective and the way that Wade's mortally-wounded state is revealed feels cheap/too traditional for a film like Saving Private Ryan, i.e. done for simple shock value. I would've preferred it if the scene contained the same filmmaking style the film has shown before and only cut back to Upham a few moments after Wade's initially shot, in my opinion. I also didn't initially understand the scene where Miller reveals his backstory to calm the agitated privates and sergeant as my attitude towards that scene was “I don't understand how one guy revealing that he used to be a teacher would convince the sergeant to lower his gun!”. Now though, I do understand it a lot more; in a way, it answers a certain question the film asks itself. Tom Hanks is saying in this scene that since he enlisted he has changed, so much so that he's become a person he doesn't want to bring home, so simply put, trying to do the right thing matters and that they have to earn the right to be able to go home. You could file this scene away as being another example of the film's battle between hope vs. reality, but it's still a pure and honest sentiment. My final possible criticism with this film is that it's a flashback film. One thing you should know about me; I HATE flashback films. Films where it starts with one person being interviewed as to how he/she/they survived some supernatural event, as an example, for me just instantly installs a lack of tension because we know that given how *this* particular person survives it means that we'll know how any tense scene we see with him/her/them ends. Now, thankfully, Saving Private Ryan handles this storytelling style quite well and the names on the gravestone(s) at the beginning are kept anonymous, even if we do kinda know that that old man is probably this film's eponymous private. Also how the hell could he have flashbacks to certain events of the film that he was not in!? Were the scenes that didn't involve him his own personal fantasy? Because if that's what it was, wow, that would change my perspective of this film greatly.

[Okay, everybody look cool in 3, 2, 1! (https://www.latimes.com/)]

In summary, legendary director Steven Spielberg, who is not a stranger to making war films and films with elements of war in them (he developed an interest in war by way of his father who had been a soldier himself), has made an absolute triumph of filmmaking, a masterpiece. Great sound design, camerawork, music, thematic depth and characters, along with realistic acting, probably the most realistic war scenes you'll ever see, and is simultaneously an epic and patriotic tribute to the brave and heroic American soldiers who left their homes to protect the lives of innocents, over 400000 of whom lost their lives in the process, while also showing how they're as human as you and I. We see a group of soldiers embark on a mission that they don't believe in, with friends of theirs being killed as they go on, but in the end try to do the right thing so that all the violence they've been involved in meant something, anything. To quote Mike Horvath, “someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess” (by the way, did you know that this story is apparently loosely based on the real-life story of the Niland brothers, four brothers who served in World War II similar to that of the Ryan brothers?). Should you decide to watch this film, which I highly recommend you do, I'd ask you to not just simply watch it but to dissect it, as I have thoroughly enjoyed thinking about why, for example, a character smiles to something another character says, etc. The film clocks in at being around two hours and forty minutes but honestly it doesn't feel like that. I've often wondered about the ranking of my personal top five war films. Where do 1917 and Dunkirk rank? Should I include films like Overlord and Inglorious Basterds (a film I didn't really like when I first watched it)? Where would The Hurt Locker, a war film I haven't seen but want to, rank? One thing I do know without much thought process is that Saving Private Ryan is absolutely number one. It's a classic that has earned that title; Saving Private Ryan isn't just the best war film I've ever seen, it's one of the best, if not, the best film I've ever seen. The only way I imagine I can like this film more is if I was American, which I'm not. I'll leave that up to you as to whether or not that's a good thing. I'm happy that my aforementioned lecturer introduced this film to me, really happy.


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